Knowledge is power.
Information is knowledge.
Read, learn, act.

If not you, who?
If not now, when?

The power of our institutions is now too great, and this is cause for the utmost concern. For example, all governments are imperfect, and abuse their power, and hence their policies, practices and laws are imperfect as well. And in modern society, with their greatly increased power – you need only think of modern weaponry, and techniques of information control and surveillance – these imperfections have been magnified.

This is the justification for many activist responses. Someone has to fight these imperfections. We have to fight to protect our personal freedom, and we can never forget that this is more important than protecting the power of the state (and the other institutions).

Consider the response of civil disobedience. This occurs when activists take a stand against an unjust law, or the unjust application of a law. In such cases activists feel compelled to challenge the law, and many people often get arrested as a result. Indeed, to accomplish change people have to get arrested; the law is too rigid to allow it otherwise. One of the best examples of this is the civil rights movement, which clearly demonstrated that in an inflexible and intolerant society, nothing will change if change is not demanded, with this sacrifice.

What we now accept as so obviously right as to be self-evident, such as African Americans being allowed to ride public buses or to eat in any restaurant, only a few years ago was not. And we would never have gotten to this point if some people, particularly the very first, including Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King, had not had the courage to get arrested (and worse) for their beliefs.

The prerequisite of activism is that you must know your cause; specifically, what problem is your concern, why it is your concern, and how it needs to be addressed. You must understand why you are being an activist! This is the only way to ensure that your efforts support a worthwhile cause, that you have not been misled to join some trendy mob, and that your work is not going to waste or causing unintended consequences. Few cases are clear-cut, and the future is very difficult to predict. You do not want to align yourself with a group against one tyranny, only to see the successors turn into tyrants as well. It is essential that your activism be based on understanding, not ignorance. Activism is a type of rebellion, and it is subject to the pitfalls of being false or misdirected.

False rebellion is rebellion meant only to achieve power, but which is presented as a fight for social justice. With victory, the rebels renounce their stated aims and instead become the next group of dictators. For instance, many of the individuals who fought colonial powers around the world, particularly in the decades following World War II, were false rebels. When their nations achieved independence they consolidated their power, often by using force against their former allies, and then established autocracies.

Misdirected rebellion, on the other hand, occurs when rebels undermine their ethical foundation by engaging in terrorism or by colluding with criminals. Examples of this include the rebel groups in Columbia that attack civilians and that are involved in the narcotics trade.

In addition, activism means being active! It means doing things, not being a spectator to the actions of others. Supporting a cause, even with financial contributions, is good, but it is not enough. You must become involved; you must do things yourself.

The main focus of activism should be on costs, on who incurs, and who pays, social and environmental costs. The basic rule of life is that actions have consequences. This can be restated as actions incur costs (and benefits). In a just social system, the people or institutions that incur costs should pay them (or not incur them!), but under our current system this is regularly not the case.

Suppose a corporation destroys a natural habitat, and then declares bankruptcy when faced with litigation over this action. The corporation then fires its rank and file employees, with no or limited compensation, but gives its executives generous severance payments. The firings in turn have destructive effects on the welfare, both physical and psychological, of the families of the employees, and on all the members, and small businesses, of the local community.

As this demonstrates, the costs extend far beyond the initial effect of environmental damage, they are in fact multiplied many times over, but the corporation is able to escape from its responsibility completely. Indeed, the departing executives may well profit handsomely.

So, who pays these costs? They were incurred, so someone has to pay them. The answer is: we all do, through having a degraded society and environment, and through the taxation requirements of government bailouts.

For modern activism to be effective, it must fight more than the recognizable, or surface, problem, in this case the environmental harm. It must fight, and change, the system that enables the burden of this destruction to be avoided by those who create it, through a process that often leads to additional, collateral damage.

Institutions regularly engage in actions that generate enormous costs, and they do this with impunity, knowing that they will not be held to account. The following are a few examples. I leave it to you to consider fully their consequences: the costs that result.

1. Corporations exist solely to earn profits. Hence:

- Corporation A, let’s call it Nike, relocates a plant to a developing country to lower its labor costs, and to avoid having to satisfy modern job standards. In the process, it fires all of its local employees.

- Corporation B, let’s call it Wal-Mart, recognizing that with proper conditioning consumers will concentrate on price to the exclusion of any other product characteristic, supports the conditioning through advertising and then constructs major outlets in any communities where local officials can be persuaded to change zoning laws and give them access to land. All smaller, traditional stores become price non-competitive. Community sprawl, with greatly increased road traffic, and the destruction of local natural habitat from derivative developments, erupts around the outlets.

- Corporation C, let’s call it Unocal, unwilling to accept the evolved competitiveness of the oil and gas industry, looks for niche opportunities in countries ruled by dictatorial regimes, that other companies have shunned, and where no costs have to be born; where the regime, let’s call it the military dictatorship in Burma, will plunder the environment, including clear-cutting pristine rain forests; will engage in ethnic cleansing – call it what it is, mass murder – along a pipeline route; and will provide slave labor, such as for access roads for the pipeline, as required.

2. Governments that threaten or engage in military conquest: to suppress democratic desires (China’s threatened invasion of Taiwan); to deny the human rights of a religious or ethnic group (Israel’s apartheid treatment of the Palestinians); or to ensure that the dominant political party retains power, and also to divert attention from their failings (the Bush Administration’s invasion of Iraq).

3. The extremist splinters of Islam, including those resident in Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Malaysia, Pakistan, Palestine, the Philippines, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, which, ignoring that Islam is a tolerant religion, actually go so far as to subvert their faith, to bring dishonor upon it (and their nations), by using it to justify terrorist acts.

4. Various and manifold media, which with a bias or outright lies report on social disputes so as to create additional controversy, to increase their sales and also the possibility that new, newsworthy events, involving the deaths of many, many people, will occur.

As these examples show, there is no credible restraint against modern social institutions. They blindly pursue their needs, without regard to the consequences. (In their view, the end justifies the means.) Only activism, the voluntary rejection of and opposition to such institutional behavior, by large numbers of individuals, offers any hope at all.

Also, the above examples demonstrate one cold, hard fact about the modern social system: we can no longer believe anything that any institution says (or any photo or video clip), without at least one independent confirmation. They believe it is their right to lie to us, and they base this right solely on the justification that to do so is in their best interests. There is no consideration of the means. It is only the end – their end – that counts. In this case, both the means and the end are unethical. (This is also an example of “doublethink.” Institutions believe they are obliged to lie to us; but, conversely, we must always be truthful with them.)

In addition to the hurdle of marshaling activism, of instigating real opposition, there is the practical issue of measuring these costs. How do you measure the costs of habitat destruction, or media hate mongering? This is the loophole that the institutions have used to escape responsibility. And, it is particularly problematic with regard to the real but intangible costs that they regularly incur, such as their negative effects on personal psychology and the derivative consequences of this on community welfare and harmony.

However, the problem of creating methods and standards of social accounting is beginning to be addressed. Measurement systems for such costs are being researched and developed. Indeed, with activist pressure they could even be made the subject of research by the corporate world, which already has experience with accounting for intangibles, through the valuation techniques that have been developed for such things as brands and trademarks. Social costs could be researched through the IASB, or International Accounting Standards Board, then incorporated into GAAP, or generally accepted accounting principles, and then propagated around the world through such institutions as the WTO, or World Trade Organization.

It is not going to be easy, though. For example, consider the just mentioned psychological costs. One way to estimate them would be to calculate the total amount spent on psychologists and psychiatrists, on the entire mental health care industry, including all its drugs. This is a sum that can be approximated. Of course, such a figure would still be too low: much mental illness goes untreated. (On the other hand, some psychological costs result from individual behavior, not institutional.) Then there is the question of how to allocate it among the various social institutions, and how to get them to pay. It is rather farfetched as well to imagine, at least at the present time, that the WTO would assist in such a process.

As another example, of research that has already been done, it has been estimated that the vast forest fires in Indonesia in 1997, and the haze that these fires produced, had an economic cost of $4.4 billion. (Source: United Nations Economy and Environment Programme for Southeast Asia) The fires were predominantly caused by illegal forest clear-cutting by rubber and other plantations, and this clear-cutting was tacitly approved by the then Indonesian dictatorship. (Suharto was the dictator at the time, and although the nation has now made its first steps toward becoming a democracy, such burning continues on an annual basis.) The estimate includes timber destruction, lost agricultural production, the loss of forest benefits for traditional local communities, including food, water and medicinal plants, and an estimated contribution to global warming. It does not include the lives of some three hundred people who died in a plane crash in Sumatra and other haze-related accidents. And, after all, how does one value a human life, or the lives of all the animals killed in the fires? Nor does it include the decline in the quality of life, for all the people and species that had to live in the haze-ridden region.

Because of these problems, with checks and balances, and cost measurement and collection, institutions and their executives have been able to escape accountability and blame. You could say that the consequence for them is that they have limited liability. The ultimate goal of activism, then, is to get institutions and their executives to behave ethically. They must be made to accept blame and responsibility for their misdeeds. They should be encouraged not to incur these costs, but if they do, they must be forced to pay them.

© Roland O. Watson 2005